Kimbe to Kimbe: PNG Revisited—an epilogue to the 11-part Didiman’s Diary Series by David Montgomery
Ten years had passed since Gillian, myself and the two boys, Scott and Mark,
had left Papua New Guinea. A new life and a new career had begun in 1967 on a property at Grabben Gullen, near Crookwell in the Southern Tablelands of NSW.
WE CALLED IT KIMBE, named after our view over Stettin and Kimbe Bays at Talasea. Our daughter Jenni was born in November 1968 at Crookwell.
In 1976 we planned a return trip to West New Britain, Wau and Lae. The boys had no memory of their early days at their home at Talasea nor of their birthplace at the Namanula Hospital, Rabaul. As a family we were keen to revisit, meet with friends, former staff members and to see a few of the places we knew ten years previously.
We arrived in Port Moresby, August, 1976, a year after Independence and it was little changed. We were hosted by Peter and Coral Croke, a former didiman and Assistant Manager—Operations, PNG Development Bank, responsible for the bank’s branches.
Harry Humphreys, MP, the Member for West New Britain and the owner of Volupai Plantation near Talasea had arranged for a visit to Parliament House, sitting in the Speakers Gallery. He and his wife Thelma had also opened a supermarket at Kimbe. We still have amongst our memorabilia some of the supermarket plastic bags. A couple of enjoyable days, with visits to the university, the orchid gardens, the PNG Museum, the Anglican and Catholic churches and also the 100-year-old Anglican church.
We then flew to Wau to stay with my old mate Ian Fraser (Goroka 1956), his wife Janet and children Brian, Sarah and Angus. Ian had established a successful coffee and cattle operation. An interesting time to see the extent of development. Ian’s children took ours to meet some of the locals in the nearby villages, a wonderful experience for them. A highlight remembered was a visit to Lloyd Hurrell and his wife, Margaret’s orchid collection. Lloyd was highly respected and honoured for his involvement in the PNG coffee industry.
From Wau, Ian drove us via Aiyura, an early posting for another friend John Gosbell. John and I graduated from Hawkesbury Agricultural College in 1955 and met up again in Goroka in 1956. We travelled to John’s property ‘Singaua’, which he owned and managed. The Land Rover journey—and anyone who had been driven by Ian would understand—put any overland car trial in Australia in the shade. ‘Singaua’ plantation is north east of Lae. We met with John, his daughters, Julie and Sandie and sons, Peter and Philip. John’s wife Noelene had died at Singaua where she is buried. Julie became his cook and homemaker.
A relaxed and happy few days. The boys were rapt in the docility of John’s Zebu cattle, thinking they would be able to re-enact Hogan’s scene in Crocodile Dundee.
Negotiating four creek crossings we arrived in Lae with plans to go onto Cape Hoskins. I still have an Air Niugini ticket dated 2 September 1976, departing 9.15 am. We boarded the aircraft to discover no seat belts had been fitted. This was declared minor and we would soon be on our way. We bought magazines and comics and sat down to wait, which we did.
About 10.30 the Panga Airlines manager arrived to say the delay would be somewhat longer and drove us up to the town. There were locals all along one street with baskets, shells, bags, belts, beads and carvings. The children were quite delighted with this unexpected turn of events. At midday ‘our’ Panga man collected us again and took us to the new Palm Lodge Motel for lunch—all airconditioned, plush chairs and carpet. People were waiting all the time to pull out chairs, open doors and generally fuss over the guests. The children were practically speechless having been hardly anywhere more exotic than Nick’s Niagara café in Crookwell in their whole lives.
We had a beautiful lunch as guests of Panga, which made it especially nice. Our man returned with all our luggage, apologised again and took us to the Air Niugini Lodge. We then spent an enjoyable afternoon visiting the Lae War Cemetery and the Botanic Gardens!
Up at 6 am next morning with the pilot and bundled ourselves into the Piper Aztec without any apprehension. I had asked the pilot if we could do a low run over ‘Singaua’ plantation, which he did. We commenced climbing and headed north-east. At about 3,000 feet our son Mark, who was seated next to the pilot, turned to me and said: ‘Dad, what is that green stuff flowing over the wing?’ Aviation fuel no less.
The pilot attempted to make an emergency call to Lae. The wireless was unserviceable! At that point, and having sufficient altitude, the pilot decided Finschhafen would be the best option, immediately ahead, rather than returning to Lae. On landing we speedily tumbled out of that airplane.
Stranger than strange to have an unplanned visit. I had spent two years working at Finschhafen, 1958–59, a delightful part of the Huon Peninsula. I decided to ring one of my senior staff members of that time, Salaen Sakaen, who answered the phone and said he would drive to the airstrip. When he arrived, he came up to me, looked, blinked, held his head and shook it and decided he wasn’t seeing things after all. He flung his arms around me and was just so excited. He had never met Gillian or the children and had a good look at the five of us, still holding and shaking his head and just couldn’t believe it was true after eighteen years.
Salaen was a pleasure to work with and his capabilities were reflected in his appointment to the PNG Coffee Marketing Board in 1963. He was awarded an OBE in 1967 and later represented PNG at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. His descriptions of all these things caused us to laugh—he was so unassuming. He only spoke Tok Pisin and it was a great pity that the children couldn’t understand the language. He wanted to take us wherever we wanted to go and hoped we would stay at his house that night at the very least!
We climbed into his car and it made the children’s day. Half-padded spring seats, very little floor and no muffler. He handed me the key and said first we needed petrol and I obliged. A tour of old sites—beautiful Dregerhaven Harbour, the delightful swimming hole at Butaweng and coastal WWII relics. Our replacement aircraft arrived, and we had a very emotional farewell with Salaen.
Unfortunately, we had to overfly Volupai airport (Talasea) now abandoned and planted to oil palm. We stepped out of the aircraft at Cape Hoskins to an unarranged meeting with former staff member, Tokabene. Another emotional greeting. He told us to wait and departed on his motorbike in the direction of the Dagi River, returning not much later in a Land Rover and took us to the Palm Lodge Motel at Kimbe. The motel was a two-storey brick building. Our room had a little fridge, electric jug and writing desk just like any motel in Australia. Our room and the children’s rooms had their own bathrooms and ours had a little balcony looking across the palm trees to the beach.
No sooner had we arrived on the previous day when Towaila, another ex-Talasea staff member, turned up almost in tears over our return. He was one of the original Dagi River block holders, and had developed his palm oil holding and purchased and developed several others. He arranged to pick us up in his truck and have a tour of his enterprises. Kessie, his wife, and children joined us. Kessie was an ex-preschool trained teacher from Rabaul and used to sometimes babysit our sons, Scott and Mark.
They took a great interest in the boys who they had not seen for ten years. It was a lovely reunion, they asked us to stay and gave us all sorts of presents—mostly food. I still have a list of some of the staff members who settled at the Dagi River.
Harry Humpreys had done a great deal to facilitate our visit. With his son, Peter, we spent a day driving up the coast from Talasea reliving our time in the area. Numundo Plantation, owned by Coconut Products Ltd, to be eventually planted to oil palm then on to Walindi a plantation formerly owned by Lou and Margaret Searle. It was subsequently developed as a plantation and dive resort.
Talasea had been abandoned as an administrative centre and was rapidly going into decline. The prewar airstrip had been cleaned up and the crashed and abandoned WWII aircraft very visible and free of tropical undergrowth. It is well described on Google and is a tourist attraction. We continued driving to the active volcanic Willaumez Peninsula via Volupai Plantation. A fascinating and awe-inspiring experience for the children to view bubbling lava not far below ground level.
Harry had arranged the Kerowagi, a government workboat to be put at our disposal at Kimbe. We travelled west up the coast to Tarobi, the coastal port for Silanga, Bangalu Bay and Walo, the shipping port for Uasilau and the developing settlements along the Ala River. It did not take long for word to spread that visitors had arrived at Hoskins, and were making their way up the coast. Ten years or so not a long gap. Meeting again with so many with whom we were involved was special. We anchored off Sulu village and were made welcome and stayed at the government rest house.
We received word that Luluai Soa Ubia, of Uasilau, could not meet us at Walo, but would be walking to Sulu to meet with us. Soa was a high profile, pro-government leader in Central Nakanai and facilitated many of the early developments amongst his people. A special moment and much tok tok through to the early hours—of times past, times present and the future of the West Nakanai.
Back in the late 1960s, marketing groups, rural progress societies, co-operative-like organisations had been formed to facilitate the orderly purchase, processing and marketing of cocoa, coffee and copra. Soa wanted to know how his people could share in the commercial activities by way of shareholders or part ownership. Perhaps this has happened?
We returned by workboat to Cape Hoskins, thence to Rabaul for our flight back to Sydney. Just one more aircraft story for those who have been following them in Didiman’s Diaries #1 to #11. Just after we left Rabaul in a DC3, the First Officer came and asked Mark if he would like to ‘come up front’. Mark then occupied the right-hand seat in the cockpit. Not long after that the aircraft went through several manoeuvres. Sitting in front of us an American tourist exclaimed, ‘Man, I think your son is flying this goddammed aircraft!!’
A memorable visit, perhaps never to be repeated.
Special and heartfelt thanks to Andrea, Belinda and Vicki and all those associated with Una Voce, for the opportunity to relive those memorable days in Papua New Guinea.